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An Ageless Hypothetical

Summary:
Suppose you could either save one 10-year-old, or X 80-year-olds.  What value of X is morally indifferent? That is, if you wanted to make the world as morally valuable as possible, when should you switch from saving one youth to X elders? I suspect that people’s modal answer will be 1.  Not the median, and certainly not the mean.  But probably the mode. Why would X=1 be such a popular answer?  Charitably, people set X=1 because they sincerely believe that all lives have equal value. In all honesty, though, I’ve yet to meet a person who merits this charity.  No one responds to the deaths of 10-year-olds and 80-year-olds with remotely equal concern.  Setting X=1 is one of the clearest-cut examples of Social Desirability Bias I’ve encountered.  The lives of the young

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Suppose you could either save one 10-year-old, or X 80-year-olds.  What value of X is morally indifferent?

That is, if you wanted to make the world as morally valuable as possible, when should you switch from saving one youth to X elders?

I suspect that people’s modal answer will be 1.  Not the median, and certainly not the mean.  But probably the mode.

Why would X=1 be such a popular answer?  Charitably, people set X=1 because they sincerely believe that all lives have equal value.

In all honesty, though, I’ve yet to meet a person who merits this charity.  No one responds to the deaths of 10-year-olds and 80-year-olds with remotely equal concern.  Setting X=1 is one of the clearest-cut examples of Social Desirability Bias I’ve encountered.  The lives of the young are plainly much more valuable than the lives of the old, for three reasons.

1. When the young die, they lose far more years of life.

2. When the young die, they are far more likely to lose healthy years of life.

3. When the young die, the people who survive them miss them much more – and miss them for a much longer time.

All things considered, I’d say that a reasonable value of X is at least 100.  Probably more like 1,000.

I suspect that many readers will strongly object to this, but on what basis?

Point 1 is clearly a big deal.  A 10-year-old can be expected to live another 69 years, an 80-year-old just 9 more years.

Point 2 is also clearly important.  Self-reported health dramatically declines with age.  And people clearly grade their health on an age-based curve.  An 80-year-olds’ version of “good health” is probably what an 18-year-old calls “poor health.”

What about Point 3?  Despite angry denials, this disparity is enormous – just as Darwin would predict.  The loss of a child is devastating.  Many parents who lose a child never emotionally recover.  In contrast, most people get over the loss of an elderly parent in weeks – or days.  Indeed, to be brutally honest, a notable minority of people actually feel better when an elderly parent dies.  Never mind ungrateful children slobbering for their inheritances.  A model child can still be relieved by the death of a parent living in pain, no longer able to enjoy life.  Or a parent whose dementia has robbed them of their sense of self.

Why are people so reluctant to admit these truisms?  In part, because they fear the bodyguards of Social Desirability Bias.  Once you admit the obvious fact that the lives of the elderly are worth much less than the lives of the young, they’ll absurdly claim you favor murdering the elderly.  Once you admit the obvious fact that people miss the elderly less than the young, they’ll absurdly claim that you don’t care if anyone over 50 drops dead.  Whatever.  A strict consequentialist will draw no fundamental distinction between killing and letting die.  The rest of us, however, know that it is wrong to murder the miserable – but praiseworthy to get the most bang for your buck when you’re selecting charities.  Or spending taxpayer money.

Another reason people are so reluctant to admit that the lives of the young are worth far more than the lives of the old, though, is pride.  I just turned 50.  Does this mean my life is worth much less than it did when I was 20?  Hemming and hawing aside, the honest answer is yes.  I’ve burned up at least 75% of the value of my life already.  While I plan to savor my last 25%, do me a favor: If you ever have to choose between saving me and saving one of my children, save them.

Indeed, if you ever have to choose between saving me for sure, and saving one of my children with 10% probability, save them.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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